Too many among us have kept quiet for too long while our democracy was being trampled. It is time now to stand up and be counted.
IT began with an attack on our culture and popular practices. From wayang kulit, mak yong, and mandi pantai, and then to yoga and poco poco, all deemed unIslamic and even banned in some states.
Then, it was ideas like pluralism, feminism, liberalism, secularism. They were all a threat to Islam. They were supposedly alien ideas, promoted by groups out to impose Western values on poor unsuspecting Malaysians.
Never mind that Malaysia has been a plural society whose diversity has been its strength for hundreds of years.
Never mind that Islam was the first religion to give women rights unknown to other religions and cultures in the seventh century.
Never mind that the Government spends billions to educate thousands of Malaysians in the liberal secular West so that we can return home to prosper this country.
Heck, never mind that our malls, cinemas, radio and television stations are overrun by Western brands and Western entertainment.
Facts will not get in the way of manufacturing enemies.
Now it is groups of people that supposedly pose a threat to the nation. Comango, Bersih, Seksualiti Merdeka, Hindraf, Shiahs, Ahmadiyahs, Christians, Chinese, liberal Muslims, apostates, LGBTs, tomboys, and demonstrators against price hikes. Who next?
Let’s not forget, too, the long list of Arabic words that pose a threat to Muslims should non-Muslims use them. And, oh yes, Kongsi Raya is a threat too, so is wishing Christians Merry Christmas.
The list just gets longer day by day, month by month. If it is not so alarming, it would have been laughable. That is why I fear that today in this country, we have forces that are systematically identifying and targeting groups and ideas, one by one, demonising them as enemies of the state, of Muslims, the Malays and the Sultans.
This scare tactic has been going on for years now and has escalated even further since the 2013 elections.
Who is orchestrating this theatre of the absurd? Who are these people manufacturing threats and fears, and turning everyone with a different opinion, a different belief, a different lifestyle into enemies who should emigrate, be demonised, denounced and detained, and charged for imagined insults and offences against Islam, the King, the Sultans, the Constitution?
And Malaysia wants to be a developed nation by 2020? That’s only six years away. Where is the time and the energy to work hard to reach this status, when political leaders and their apparatchiks seem obsessed with making enemies of their fellow citizens? Who will be left to do the work?
What is the game plan here? I am bewildered as to where this leadership wants the country to go. Surely this is not the way to win support and votes.
There was a time when our political leadership wanted us to “duduk sama rendah, diri sama tinggi”. We aspired to be proud, confident, respected as equals.
Now they want us to cower in fear of endless bogeymen. Does the Government realise what happens to the national psyche when citizens are pummelled with a daily dosage of fears and threats and new enemies to hate?
When certain government-controlled national media become instruments of fear-mongering and hate speech? When they represent only one point of view that serves the desperate political interest of one segment of the population to the exclusion of others? When hate speech purveyed by extremist individuals and groups are projected as the national discourse of a whole community because no other point of view is allowed to be heard?
This is a dangerous corrosive game of politics. We have seen how such bellicose hate language over the media and in the public square eventually led to conflict and outbreak of violence. Think Bosnia, think Rwanda, think Gujarat.
As the political commentator Michael Ignatieff wrote, where language leads, conduct follows. Battle cries drown out democratic persuasion. By slow degrees, belligerence and self-righteousness make cooperation impossible, he asserted.
If our political leaders on both sides of the divide do not take immediate steps to put a stop to this dangerous escalating political game of race and religion under threat, then I fear the worst might happen. Already these agent provocateurs are priming for violence with the Molotov cocktails thrown at a church and banners designed to inflame conservative Muslim sentiments. Today, it is only my faith in the good people of Malaysia that gives me some hope.
The Christian community has decided to turn the other cheek to these provocations to maintain peace. Much as there are desperate politicians determined to lead us to the precipice and jump into the abyss of racial and religious conflict, we the people will not go there. We will not be pawns.
What is urgently needed today is a bipartisan approach to resolve all these issues of conflict, and to separate the real from the imagined.
Let me share this statement, as food for thought, which has been attributed to German theologian and social activist Martin Niemoller who criticised German intellectuals for keeping quiet while the Nazis purged one group of people after another:
“First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out; Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out; Because I was not a Socialist.
“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out; Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
“Then they came for me; And there was no one left to speak for me.”
So if our political leaders have neither the will nor the courage to do what is needed and what is right for this nation, then we the people must show them. We must show them we want to build bridges, live together, understand and respect each other. This is as much our country as it is theirs.
No, thank you, we don’t wish to emigrate. So we will not keep quiet. Too many among us have kept quiet for too long while our democracy was being trampled. It is time now to stand up and be counted.
We know that it is our heritage of pluralism and diversity that has been our strength. We will not let the politicians and their toadies kill this spirit and replace it with endless fears and threats to divide us for their short-term political gain. That is no future to live for in our beloved country.
While we the people believe there is a place in the sun for every Malaysian, I am amazed that those who are supposed to be our leaders feel there is space only for people who think and behave like them.
In the end, who really is a threat to national unity and political stability?
Zainah Anwar is the internationally acclaimed and award-winning co-founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum) and the co-founder and director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She is a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).